"No one will forget their uncle’s infamous 'Dry-Ass Turkey of 1994.'"
In an essay titled "Is Thanksgiving the Only Critic-Proof Meal?” A.O. Scott recently described an unwritten rule of his family’s dinner table etiquette: No matter how bad the food, the Thanksgiving meal is above reproach. Writing about holidays past, he recalled how nobody would tell poor Grandpa the truth about his awful oyster stuffing. I chuckled and shared the post with my Twitter followers, adding a cynical “LOL.”
Sure enough, my (predominantly black) audience knew exactly why I was laughing out loud. In many of our homes, holiday dinners are the least critic-proof meals served all year. When family members fail to bake or braise properly, their punishment is often swift and certain. People tweeted replies citing aunts banned from side dish duty and some offending cooks who were disinvited from Thanksgiving dinner altogether.
Simply put, many of us roast our cooks on Thanksgiving. The practice comes from “the Dozens,” a tradition of fierce verbal sparring that dates back hundreds of years. Unique to Black American culture, the Dozens spawned “yo mama” jokes, hip hop lyricism and countless memorable moments in movie and television scripts. The funny insults that fly back and forth across the dinner table are as important to our heritage as the meals we serve. Like any family gathering, there is as much love present at the table as there is food. But with love comes a dose of honesty. You’ll certainly be praised for putting your foot in the greens, but if you think nobody will notice your burnt biscuit bottoms, think again.
Suddenly children become rude, your cousins ruthless, and your drunk auntie even worse. For the duration of dinner they’ll make jokes at your expense and your mom, who you thought always had your back, will laugh until tears fall from her eyes. And you will know that at every future Thanksgiving, every time your family passes the biscuits, somebody will recall the time you burnt them and the whole table will erupt all over again.
Given that traditional holiday food in the United States looks a lot like traditional soul food, Black Americans have come to expect a lot from our Thanksgiving dinners. There are unspoken rules about what does and doesn’t belong on the table and who gets to make it. You’ll likely see a simmering pot of spicy, vinegary collard greens, aluminum pans sighing under the weight of gooey mac & cheese, syrupy candied yams, and dressing made from scratch. Sweet potato pie will frequently take the place of pumpkin and, despite the season, peach cobbler often makes an appearance.
These dishes are not just recipes we pull out once a year for Thanksgiving. We will eat nearly the same exact meal on Christmas and again for Easter. If you’re lucky, you might even catch a few Sunday dinners that come close. Food has always played a central role in Black American culture and as such it is celebrated constantly. At Thanksgiving, it is a badge of honor to be responsible for the mac and cheese, trusted with the dressing or revered for perfect sweet potato pies. But it isn’t hard to fall from grace.
Failing to properly clean the collard greens could put you on paper plate duty forever. Undercooked meat may get you cursed out at the table. No one will forget their uncle’s infamous “Dry-Ass Turkey of 1994” and they certainly won’t hesitate to pass these stories on to the next generation, embellished as each year passes. Even death does not preclude a good roasting; multiple people relayed stories to me via Twitter of jabs about a bad meal retold at the ousted cook’s funeral. This joking ranges from playful to downright mean at times, but it is real and it is us.
Indeed, you’d better have thick skin if you plan on cooking in my house, but our holiday memories—and recipes—are better for it. I still recall my nerves the first time I prepared collard greens at a family gathering. My dad had always been in charge of greens, so taking over was a big deal. I passed the test, but not without a couple slick remarks from my uncle about my choice of ingredients (my advice: don’t ever tell black folks you added kale to anything). The following year I used a mix of collards and mustard greens, traded smoked turkey for a ham hock and made it a tad spicier—just the way my uncle liked it. Coincidentally, that very same year he burned a batch of ribs at our annual fourth of July cookout. We haven’t let him grill since.